by Tova Reich
Syracuse University Press 264 pp
Reviewed by Joan Leegant
Tova Reich pulls no punches. In a body of work that spans forty years, Reich has taken on the ba’al tshuva world (“Master of the Return”), religious fanaticism (“The Jewish War”), the commodification of the Holocaust (“My Holocaust”), and the dicey place of women in Jewish ritual life (“One Hundred Philistine Foreskins”) in novels that are both extravagantly satiric and deeply sympathetic, all coming from a place of impressive Jewish knowledge. Her work is not for the easily offended. Yet for those up to the challenge, her books can be profoundly invigorating, mordantly funny, and thrilling to read for their dazzlingly dense prose, sentences that spiral and loop and race with the urgency of a high-speed train. Reich, in other words, lets it rip.
Her new novel, “Mother India,” expands Reich’s geographical reach beyond her prior New York-Israel axis to include, as the narrator calls it, the “subcontinent.” Set in the approximate present and including in its sweep the 2008 attack on Nariman House, Mumbai’s Chabad center, the story is told by Meena, a secular Jewish lesbian from a well-known rabbinical family in Brooklyn who has moved to India and is raising her daughter Maya while running a spiritual tourism business.
In Part One, titled “Ma,” Meena’s strictly Orthodox mother has come to India to die rather than pointlessly continue with chemo and wants the full local—read Hindu—ritual: cremation and a watery end in the Ganges so that her soul will finally be released from the endless cycle of living and dying. “She recognized that liberation was actually not in the cards in the Jewish death deal. Where you landed in the next world, heaven or hell, Gan Eden or Gehinnom, depended on your docket in this one…And this was also true in the overcrowded Hindu cosmos, with its thirty-six million idols and getchkes.” Only if she dies in Varanasi in the lap of Mother Ganga will Ma be set free.
While refusing to make hefty Ma a stereotype or object of ridicule, Reich mines both the beauty and absurdity of Ma’s embrace of the alien rituals—Ma’s unshakeable serenity as she lies in bed awaiting death while leaving her jewelry out for her tiny devoted impoverished servant Manika to steal, and the brightly painted muscular eunuchs who, along with a troop of Ma-besotted monkeys, guard her lifeless body against eager Chabadniks who want to grab her for resurrection in the world to come.
In Part Two, titled “Maya,” Reich uses a more earnest tone as Meena continues the story after Ma’s death in the form of an extended letter to her daughter Maya, in which Meena attempts to explain and justify her own complicated mothering. She recounts Maya’s teenage attraction first to Chabad in Mumbai and then, after a painful rejection by the Chabad rabbi’s son, to a cult run by the beloved Amma, an enormous woman who sits for twenty hours a day dispensing bosomy hugs to the hordes who line up for hours to wait their turns (apparently based on a real person), while skillfully managing to text with her free hand—an attachment that for Maya leads to a dire outcome. Here the story also delves into Meena’s love affair with Geeta, a beautiful rich Hindu woman who was a second mother to Maya, along with Geeta’s painful abandonment: “We were dogs with our tongues hanging out, panting from the heat when Geeta left us. The air pressed down upon us, and behind it the weight of the monsoon, but still the rains would not come. The ground was parched, the breasts of the beggar women suckling in the street were dried up and shriveled.”
Last, in Part Three, titled “Meena,” and the most affecting part for me, a sobered and bereft Meena becomes involved with her twin brother Shmelke, once a brilliant Talmudist now known as Rabbi-ji. Run out of Israel for possible criminal conduct, ducking extradition to Jerusalem after stopping at various way stations around the world, Shmelke has arrived in India with his followers to take up residence in Kolkata in the old hospice belonging to Mother Teresa, where he will continue to enact his unique theology of tikkun olam: immersing in the world of the unholy, particularly that of sexual immorality, in order to recover the divine sparks of creation that were lost and sunk. A questionable theology that in Reich’s hands comes across as no stranger than any other, and which, in Shmelke’s case, includes attempts to rescue a group of Indian girls from sex trafficking.
With this novel, Reich continues her lifelong examination of religion and its power to comfort and unnerve, often at the same time. Also as in other Reich novels, women abound, wearing their symbolism not on their sleeves so much as on their bodies. They are, as the title suggests, the all encompassing. Some are pointedly big, such as the fleshy hugging guru, and Meena’s swollen mother, Ma, still fat despite chemo, who requires a specially made carrier to transport her to her own cremation so that she doesn’t collapse en route; others, like the servant Manika, remain perennially as small as children.
In this book, it’s women’s love that takes front and center; while the irrational demands of religion and cult bray and carry on around them mainly through the excesses of men—the exacting and sometimes cruel Chabadniks, the anti-Semitic attackers blowing up Nariman House, the money-grubbing priests at Varanasi whom Meena must bribe in order to allow Ma’s cremation to move forward, and the peculiarities of Shmelke’s neo-whatever theology—it is the women whose abiding love and devotion, mostly for each other, make life tolerable and worth living.
An exhilarating and brilliant ride of a novel, full to the brim with both braininess and heart.
Joan Leegant is the author of two books of fiction as well as numerous additional stories and essays. Her work has won the PEN/New England Book Award, the Wallant Award for Jewish Fiction, and been a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award. From 2007-2013 she was a visiting writer at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. Formerly a lawyer, Joan has taught at Harvard, Oklahoma State, and Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, Washington, where she was also the writer-in-residence at Hugo House. She lives in Newton, Massachusetts. For more about Joan and her work, visit: www.joanleegant.com.
The Book of Jeremiah